Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reflections on a Holy Spirit Hymn

From my parish newsletter.

Among the mysteries of our Christian faith, the Holy Spirit has certainly inspired a sizable amount of devotional poetry. This text, which occurs in the Hymnal 1982 at #516, is a translation of part of a poem written in Italian (Discendi, amor santo...) by Bianco da Siena, a Tuscan who died in Venice in 1434, and about whom virtually nothing is known, save for the legacy of these exquisite lines. The translator is R. F. Littledale, a 19th century Church of England priest and liturgical scholar.
Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.
This first stanza introduces an image that is found throughout the hymn: the Holy Spirit as fire. On the day of Pentecost, "tongues of fire" were seen above the heads of the apostles (this, by the way, is part of what lies behind the shape of the liturgical headgear worn by bishops--the miter--reinforcing the notion that bishops are "successors of the apostles"). Human experience of fire is ambivalent: It warms and cheers, and it also burns and consumes. In this verse, the poet (and by extension, those who sing the hymn) invites the "Comforter" (one of the biblical euphemisms for the Holy Spirit) to "draw near" and "kindle" our hearts with a "holy flame."
O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.
Now the fire that has been kindled is invited to "freely burn," which is always a risky proposition. Burns cause pain. But what is it that we are asking be destroyed by the Spirit's "heat consuming"? "Earthly passions," sinful desires that, in the language of our baptismal liturgy, "draw us from the love of God." Then one of the benign properties of fire is invoked--that of providing light, light that is at the same time "glorious" and a practical source of illumination, providing light for the path on which we walk. Indeed, guidance is one of the ministries of the Holy Spirit.
And so the yearning strong,
with which the soul will long,
shall far outpass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace,
till Love create a place
wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.
All this fire and light is eventually bound to make some changes in the soul which has invited and welcomed it. The Spirit's ministry produces a "yearning strong" for more of the same, a yearning that cannot be adequately articulated in human language, and can be known only by others who have been possessed by the same yearning.

The tune is from the renowned English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1959), and is called Down Ampney after the village of his birth. The text and tune are pretty happily married to one another among English-speaking hymn singers, as there are no suggested alternates in either direction. We will sing this hymn at the 10:15 liturgy on the Day of Pentecost, May 23, as our post-communion devotion.


Anonymous said...

A favorite of mine. Another stanza from Hymns A & M:

Let holy charity
Mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing:
True lowliness of heart,
Which takes the humbler part,
And o'er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.
- Jim

Malcolm+ said...

Anonym's stanza is the third in the Canadian hymnals.

At college, Fr. Buchner suggested this wasn't a good hymn for weddings, despite the opening lines. He rather felt that newly wed couples might have other purposes than burning for earthly passions

Victorian Barbarian said...

This is one of the hymns that was rewritten to change the pronouns. You can find the original words here ( The meaning of the stanza beginning "And so the yearning strong" is subtly different because of the alterations: "For none can guess its grace, Til he become the place/Wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling." The shift in action from the individual soul making a place to Love acting on the individual from outside, defensible theologically, is still different from what the poet said in the original. The hymnal version is grammatically better than replacing "he" with "they," but the ungrammatical change would have preserved the poet's original sentiment, and there is ancient precedent for the ungrammatical substitution (as much as it hurts my editorial soul to say it).

Daniel Martins said...

Victorian Barbarian, you are, of course, correct, and I was aware of this. It is a source of sadness for me. But I still love the hymn.

Unknown said...

The line, 'till Love create a place' is a more recent alteration in my opinion. I'm sure the original would have been: 'Till he become the place'.